Sustainability is more than just a buzzword


Our features editor Stuart Nathan recently unearthed  a graph (from the humour website xkcd) indicating that use of the word ‘sustainability’  was itself unsustainable: that at some point in the not-too-distant future — 2109 to be precise — constant use of  the word will render it meaningless.

‘Sustainability’ is fast becoming one of industry’s most overused buzzwords. It’s the new ‘green’: deployed willy-nilly and without discretion to lend a veneer of worthiness to the most dubious projects and initiatives.

This is a shame because, used appropriately, it’s actually quite a good word and a useful way of describing how more efficient use of resources can help preserve the conditions for long-term economic growth.  

So, in this special sustainability-themed issue, we’ve tried to do our bit to reclaim the word from the marketeers, charlatans and masters of greenwash. We’ve looked at what sustainability really means to UK engineering businesses, examined how the concept figures in industry’s plans for the future,  and — from the world’s biggest offshore wind farm to a new system for measuring industry’s carbon footprint — looked at some impressive sustainable projects.

Such words can be used to lend a veneer of worthiness to the most dubious initiatves

In our current issue’s interview, Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at the Seymourpowell design consultancy, identifies a recent change in the way the concept is perceived by industry. He claims that while in the past sustainability commitments were frequently the first casualties of a straitened economy, industry now takes a longer-term view. Energy efficiency, recyclability and waste reduction are, Sherwin claims, no longer viewed as a necessary evil but increasingly as a sensible route to longevity and prosperity.

Nevertheless, some areas of industry are more resistant to change than others, including the automotive sector (‘Lightening the load’). Despite notable exceptions, the sector’s huge capital investment in pressed-steel plant makes the volume deployment of lighter-weight materials unattractive to manufacturers — a reminder that the route to sustainability isn’t always clear cut.

I could go on, but with a glance back over this column revealing a worrying number of occurrences of the word in question, it’s probably time to stop. I wouldn’t want to be guilty of hastening its obsolescence.

Jon Excell Editor